It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, Diane Williams. FC2. 104pp, $17.95.
For Diane Williams, the bloom and buzz of perceptual experience are formal inspirations as well as thematic ones. Her fiction relentlessly foregrounds the less noble aspects of our cognitive life—obsession, distraction, forgetfulness—by making them into the forces that sculpt her prose. Most of the stories in her new collection occupy only a page or so but are densely packed with tonal reversals, point-of-view shifts, and intrusions of emotion abrupt enough to push sentences to the fringes of grammaticality. Some are characterizable as a species of prose poetry, while others (in particular the novella “On Sexual Strength”) have sufficient narrative coherence to provide recognizably “fictional” satisfaction. What unites them all is the way they root their defamiliarizing effects in painfully familiar emotional situations.
“On Sexual Strength” is a story of adultery in suburbia—by now a totally banal topic in American fiction. Paradoxically, its very banality makes it an ideal topic for Williams, allowing her methods to work unsullied by exotic content. Beginning at the beginning, we read:
Mr. Bird was sexually strong. That sounds good. Three—four times a night—he’d wake his wife up and thereby pass himself off as a man who encourages one to get certain ideas.
Right away, the question looms of whose voice we’re hearing. The initial sentence is authoritative, perhaps the declaration of a master sexologist in a case study. But its authority is completely undermined by the sentence that follows, a superfluous and off-tone judgment that reeks of doubt. The long final sentence attempts a return to a clinical register with its use of precise-sounding numbers before degenerating into unscientific speculation. Are the concepts of passing himself off and encouraging one to get certain ideas sufficiently justified by the few real observations given to merit the use of the sternly causal thereby? Who does this narrator think he is, anyway?
The admission comes a few lines down the page: “I am the neighbor.” His name is Enrique Woytus, he covets Mrs. Bird (“Blanche”), and his biases and drives are what bend the novella’s paragraphs into such odd shapes. Not that Enrique himself is odd: “I am an American fur sales manager.” His particular sexual anxieties are also unexceptional. The same can’t be said about how Williams expresses them:
I went outside to toss the slugs off the lettuce and Blanche excused herself.
Try as I may, I was going over my morning stuff.
I knew I liked sex. I just couldn’t get enough practice.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many, many people know the whys and the wherefores of the modern methods for sex—up-to-the-minute, well-balanced information.
Well, my wife has a customary sympathetic manner and she enjoys breast play. Her mother told me.
Somebody said if you bury a bottle of beer, all of the slugs will leave your lettuce alone and they will drink your beer! Now there were so many slugs it was just crazy!
Note that the only sentences that get exclamation points are about slugs. We’re left to infer the shape of Enrique’s doubt, and the contrast with the “sexual strength” of Mr. Bird, from the deadpan center paragraphs. This kind of misalignment between the emphasis that’s baldly given and the emphasis that’s implied is a signature move for Williams, one she deploys whenever emotion threatens to become overpowering. Discerning the nature and intensity of that emotion from the descriptive ghosts in the prose is left as an exercise for the reader. The curious product of this method of self-censoring is writing that grows more balanced structurally as it grows more immoderate in its meaning.
Another curious aspect of the works collected here is the way they divorce sexual mores from sexual morality—both the novella and the shorter, more gnomic stories that follow share this quality. More traditional narratives of adultery set the compulsions of desire against the obligations of faithfulness, generating their emotional heat from the friction between the two groups of drives. As often as not, this kind of conflict is presented as an occasion for moral judgment or speculation. But Williams is no more explicit about values than she is about passions, leaving us to bring our own intuitions about right and wrong to the text.
One important difference between the way Williams handles emotion and the way she handles morality is that moral qualities are rarely brought up, even indirectly. Her characters live in a world where sexual success is planned for with the same neutral determination as any work task, and where cheating on one’s spouse is “wrong” in roughly the same way losing a tennis match is. The two appearances of the phrase “not right” in the book’s shorter stories make these points well:
The man remember I told you about?—who calls me?—called me and he wanted to come over and I told him that now really wasn’t a good time for me to have sexual relations, but he came over and what we did was peculiar, not very good, very odd, not right.
I present my problem to nearly everyone I know well and there is no solution to my problem. They ask me, “How did that happen?” or they say, “This is not right.” They want to talk to me about sex, what I should know about fortune-telling, how to think logically, how to improve my conversation.
[from "A Dramatic Classic Leap"]
Embedded in a different kind of story, the first paragraph could almost be a description of an assault or rape. But knowing the bias Williams has against any moral implications in her work, it’s more natural to interpret “not right” as suggesting peculiarity or oddity. The second paragraph quotes advice to the narrator in the form of value-neutral tips for better living. Again, no moral judgment is implied—the issues that prompt the suggestions are merely disappointments, not sins.
All the strategic cuts and elisions Williams employs yield a slim but challenging volume. What initially reads as stylistic redundancy between the book’s 41 stories and novella becomes, after a few passes, an impressive unity of focus on a tightly linked group of themes. The epiphanies suppressed in the text are there to be had if we read hard enough.
Sacha Arnold is a contributing editor at Other magazine and lives in San Francisco.
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